AN INDIAN bridge player has gained the undesirable distinction of becoming the first from the country to test positive for a banned substance — an incident that is being described as an “eye-opener” for a sport where making an international debut at 60 isn’t uncommon.
On December 28, Arvind Vaidya, an India international was banned for two years after testing positive for a diuretic which is a masking agent (chlortalidone). Pills with chlortalidone are taken for hypertension, but they are also diuretics classified as masking agents in anti-doping.
Sources close to Vaidya, who is 58, said it was his high BP tablet that landed him in the most recent list of sanctioned athletes by the National Anti-doping Agency’s disciplinary panel.
“Given the average age of bridge players, many of them are on tablets for ailments such as high blood pressure. This incident is an eye-opener for the fraternity, most of whom will not be aware of the repercussions of taking their daily life-saving medications,” says Manish Bahuguna, a regular bridge player and former administrator.
“The practice has been to alert those selected for India and heading to global tournaments, about finding alternatives to their medicines or seeking therapeutic exemptions. For bridge players, it’s always going to pose a challenge,” he says. “95 percent of that age profile are on hypertension medication, and 5 percent on anti-depressants as well.”
Vaidya twice went to the World Championships in open category (not as Indian team) and is a triple national champion in different categories in 1998 and 2002. He was also coach of Indian team in 2012 (China) and 2016 (Turkey).
A therapeutic use exemption (TUE) allows athletes to use medicines for a diagnosed medical condition, even if the medication contains a prohibited substance. An athlete with a TUE cannot be sanctioned if he or she tests positive for a substance, which is in the medication but prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The Indian Express has learnt that Vaidya was at the PYC Gymkhana in Pune on February 25, 2022, watching the men’s team trials for an upcoming tournament. He was due to participate in the mixed pair’s trial the day after when dope control officers landed at the venue where he was watching as a spectator. “They drew chits and 3-4 from spectators got tested,” said another player present that day.
The bridge federation received the first intimation of Vaidya’s Sample A testing positive in mid-July, a member of the federation said. “Had he known, he could have declared his prescription and taken exemption. I hope they consider his situation because most of us are on these medicines,” Bahuguna said.
Unlike track and field or badminton or boxing, performance-enabling drugs in the steroid classification cannot help in bridge which doesn’t need muscular enhancement. Norwegian Geir Helgemo was banned for one year in 2019 for anabolic steroids.
Bridge players’ skillset and mental faculties are drawn from card-play bidding, and they sit at the table for three hours, and results depend entirely on partnerships. Their age range could span 18-80 years — one of those tested back in February last year was in his early 30s.
However, anti-doping rules are carved in stone, and with bridge weaving dreams of the Olympics and already present in Asian Games, a zero-tolerance policy is expected. Yet, given 85 percent of global players are over-45, according to estimates, anti-doping authorities are likely to run into players regularly using this medication quite often. “More than 90 percent in bridge will face this, because most are patients of lifestyle diseases. So bridge vis-a-vis other sports is different,” Bahuguna said.